Publications and Research

Document Type


Publication Date

April 2009


What sort of culture would evolve in an island colony of naive founders? This question cannot be studied experimentally in humans. We performed the analogous experiment using socially learned birdsong. Culture is typically viewed as consisting of traits inherited epigenetically, via social learning. However, cultural diversity has species-typical constraints1, presumably of genetic origin. A celebrated, if contentious, example is whether a universal grammar constrains syntactic diversity in human languages2. Oscine songbirds exhibit song learning and provide biologically tractable models of culture: members of a species show individual variation in song3 and geographically separated groups have local song dialects 4,5. Different species exhibit distinct song cultures6,7, suggestive of genetic constraints8,9. Absent such constraints, innovations and copying errors should cause unbounded variation over multiple generations or geographical distance, contrary to observations9. We asked if wild-type song culture might emerge over multiple generations in an isolated colony founded by isolates, and if so, how this might happen and what type of social environment is required10. Zebra finch isolates, unexposed to singing males during development, produce song with characteristics that differ from the wild-type song found in laboratory11 or natural colonies. In tutoring lineages starting from isolate founders, we quantified alterations in song across tutoring generations in two social environments: tutor-pupil pairs in sound-isolated chambers and an isolated semi-natural colony. In both settings, juveniles imitated the isolate tutors, but changed certain characteristics of the songs. These alterations accumulated over learning generations. Consequently, songs evolved toward the wild-type in 3–4 generations. Thus, species-typical song culture can appear de novo. Our study has parallels with language change and evolution12,13. In analogy to models in quantitative genetics14,15, we model song culture as a multi-generational phenotype, partly encoded genetically in an isolate founding population, influenced by environmental variables, and taking multiple generations to emerge.


This work was originally published in Nature, available at doi:10.1038/nature07994.



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